Comfortable and Furious

A NATION OF CHEAPSKATES

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Maybe it’s the timing, or those late afternoon blues, but having just returned from the public library, I am, more than usual, a fountain of rage. Yeah, I was there to pick up a book, as I do from time to time, and while I was there, I was going to use one of many computers lining the far well of the establishment. Only none were available. In fact, I couldn’t even see the damn machines, what with the teeming masses scratching and spitting before their weary monitors. So I waited. And paced. And sat in a huff. After what seemed like a several endless days, I left, muttering vague obscenities as I went. Driving away with only my shaking fist visible to the multitudes, I screeched down the block and spied a Kinko’s. They too had computers, I thought, and so I pulled in.

And there they were: clean, perky, and inescapably available. Sure, they were 20 cents a minute, but I could take my time. Browse at my leisure. No one’s hot, homeless breath wilting the hairs on the back of my neck, impatiently waiting to clear away the must and odor of an empty match.com inbox. At that moment, though the sentiment had been building, I have never been more of a capitalist. If you want it, you have to pay for it. Higher prices do, in fact, connote inherent worth. From internet time to sex itself, the best things in life are not – and never will be – free.

These “revelations” may seem obvious and trite, but they do not occur in a vacuum. Libraries, as wonderful as they are in theory, are but the first in a series of disastrous social policies that began in earnest, only to descend into a sweltering free-for-all where nobody wins, save the shiftless. When Andrew Carnegie envisioned institutions of learning available to all, his cause was noble to be sure, but not even he could have foreseen the disorganized shelves of free DVDs, picked clean as if by piranhas, which currently stand as the single worst idea in the history of philanthropy. To date, no fewer than 98% of DVDs I have been foolish enough to check out have been scratched, dented, bent, or broken in two. Just as often, I had to stop a movie in progress because the disc was too worn or battered to continue.

This, of course, assumes the DVD in question is even available. Fancy a new release? Fair enough, so long as you don’t mind being 400 deep on the waiting list. By that time, of course, the disc has been used as a Frisbee, coaster, and chew toy, and would have also been shoved into every available opening and orifice by dozens of unwashed children. Netflix discs can often fare little better, but as they are paid for (fine, rented) a sense of ownership does tend to come into play most of the time. In the end, you’re better off just buying the damn thing.

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But I digress. As much as libraries can often take on the appearance of a bank run circa 1930, nothing is more indicative of the perils of free than the movie premiere. My film society membership entitles me to a few sneak previews from time to time, but I long ago stopped going, as I grew weary of the snake-like lines in freezing drizzle, combined with the ignorant slobs who, to a man, always inquired, “So what am I seeing again?” Far from cinephiles, these lustful, dimwitted bargain-hunters simply snapped up the passes, pausing only to glance at a time and location. It could have been two hours of someone’s home movies splashed against a bed sheet; all that mattered was that the (absence of) price was right. Take Doubt, the last film that I’ll ever stoop to see before the general public: I knew of it, had seen the play, and was genuinely excited to see it, if only to have a six-week jump on everyone else.

The screening, needless to say, was chaotic at best, and my ear burned with murderous disgust as I spent the next 45 minutes of shuffling around bon mots such as, “I think it stars Dustin Hoffman, right?” or, “I only saw two movies last year, so this is a treat.” I was appalled and embarrassed, though most of all for feeling as cheap and selfish as these wretched cretins. And the lines to get in are just the start. Like gravity itself or the elliptical orbit of the planets, you can set your watch to the fact that for every free pass that substitutes for a full-price ticket, a cell phone will ring, a mid-film conversation will ensue, and that bump in that dude’s jacket will reveal the homemade meal he thought would be acceptable to inhale in lieu of for-profit popcorn.

And then there’s the free meal. Just this week, Denny’s, apparently completely oblivious to life in these United States, saw fit to tell the public that for a certain part of the day, all Grand Slam breakfasts would be on the house. Despite lacking phones, email, or even addresses, the nation’s homeless, as if alerted by a Bat-signal in the shape of a sausage link, descended on the nation’s most recognizable diner like the locusts from The Good Earth. From all reports, wait times were running 3-4 hours, and lines were so long, beleaguered managers stopped counting by noon. Huddled, hungry, and quite possibly homicidal, these fanatics of street cuisine, who apparently hadn’t been aware that a mere sawbuck could have purchased the very same meal – twice – a mere 24 hours before, saw the offer as their own golden ticket to a day’s paradise. Still, the greedy bastards at Denny’s did not include a beverage, so the nation’s faucets were brought to the brink of disaster by an unusually high demand for complimentary water.

And if you’re the sort of person who would drive for an hour, wait in line for three more, and stuff yourself in the middle of a shower-free holocaust of slang-wielding obesity, all for a few runny eggs, a soggy pancake, fat-laden bacon, a few mystery meat sausage links, and a bit of dry toast, then you are exactly the man (or woman) who will not leave any semblance of a tip. Sure, maybe the soiled coins you managed to pull from your tattered back pocket, or maybe the quarter you found lodged in one of your caverns of lard. They say that black people don’t tip, but rest assured, penniless bums most certainly do not. So on this one day in February, one-fifth of the nation’s waitresses pretty much worked their asses off for nothing. Because, for the one and only time in the lives of our delightful fatties, no one was ordering dessert.

And how about this digital TV conversion? The whole thing is now delayed until the summer, presumably to ask that our nation’s seniors watch an additional 300 hours of commercials warning of the coming change. You know, the very ads that began running in 2004? No, several million people are still unprepared for the move, and it will take more than threats, coupons, home delivered converter boxes, and dire warnings to pry those Eisenhower models from their arthritic claws. Who on earth, save the irredeemably stupid, would continue to suck free television from the sky? Geezers and shut-ins aside, let me introduce you once again to the nation’s freeloaders; the cheap, stingy, miserly buggers who roar to the heavens whenever stamps go one more penny beyond the good ol’ days figure of a nickel.

Hey grandma, when you can walk your letter from Los Angeles to New York for 42-cents, I’ll listen to your insane ramblings. Until then, lick it, ship it, and shut the hell up. Only the stamps are self-adhesive now, which is certain to send you into a haze of hellfire and dementia. But the old and useless are but a part of the problem. The others, the penny-pinchers, whether viewing the cable company as a Mason-driven conspiracy to enslave us all, or yet another unnecessary expense that takes much-needed reserves from lottery tickets and cases of Pabst, simply cannot accept that the world no longer offers us but a handful of channels. Sure, they relented slightly when Fox broke up the Big Three monopoly, but they’ll be damned if they’ll pay for their entertainment. Why else watch commercials?

It’s just as bad in the just-above-free realm as well, lest you get comfortable with your bargain bin. Remember the 23-cent pizza riots last year? The ones that reduced Watts to a curious, church picnic-like footnote? Papa John’s is still cleaning up the mess, though it’s hard to sympathize with any company that saw nothing wrong with using loudspeakers to advertise cut-rate grease in fucking Cleveland, of all places. Sorry, JaMarcus, a small sausage and ham is not a civil right, and it’s no longer a sit-in. We call it loitering. If such people put one-tenth the effort into finding work as they did getting free shit, the ghettos would be the French Riviera within a fortnight. And god-for-fucking-bid you ever stand between a man and penny beer, black or white. So while they see the price of everything and the value of nothing, these sick reminders of impending doom continue to push everything worth having into the realm of exclusivity.

It’s why I buy most of my books, or attend expensive film festivals, or crumble coupons in my paw like so much refuse. Top dollar is where it’s at, and I’ll happily overpay if it means I get to avoid seeing you or anyone like you at my theater. Or bookstore. Or bedside with my adult services technician. It’s why I tip well, buy high, and sneer at deal-making. Sure, it’s the surest road to insolvency, but at least I’ll have my pride. And when I look back, trying to make sense of my life, I’ll know that for all the mistakes, regrets, and pointless excursions endured like a good little boy, I not once sold my soul for a sandwich. At least not one I didn’t gladly pay for.


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